As RealityChek readers surely know by now, reporting information out of context is one of my biggest gripes about journalism these days. (See, e.g., here.) So if there hadn’t been so much important news coming out of the Ukraine war and on so many other fronts this week, I’d have already written about an especially egregious example that appeared in the Washington Post this past Thursday.
Its big “exclusive” finding? “The Post collected data on nearly 40,000 payments [to resolve police misconduct claims] at 25 of the nation’s largest police and sheriff’s departments within the past decade, documenting more than $3.2 billion spent to settle claims.”
Sounds like a bundle right? Even a criminally large amount of money. In isolation, of course. But information never exists in isolation. And any reporter or anyone else with a working brain or a lick of integrity would have tried to answer these two questions: How does this sum compare with the nation’s total policing budget over the same period? And how does it compare with the national cost of crime?
None of this background appeared in the Post piece. But it took me a grand total of thirtyseconds of searching on-line to find answers from reliable sources.
The national law cost of policing? That’s $115 billion per year, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, whose declared mission is ending “the overcriminalization and mass incarceration of people of color, immigrants, and people experiencing poverty.”
That is, the organization isn’t exactly an apologist for current policing performance. But it’s telling us that over ten years, the cost of settling police misconduct claims equalled 0.28 percent of America’s policing budget (of $1.15 trillion). Any decent person would like to see that number fall to zero percent, but 0.28 is pretty close. And it’s even better considering that, as at least Post reporters Keith Alexander, Steven Rich, and Hannah Thacker (along with their editors) had the honesty to observe (in the middle of this long article) that
“City officials and attorneys representing the police departments said settling claims is often more cost-efficient than fighting them in court. And settlements rarely involve an admission or finding of wrongdoing.”
The authors also state that their figures exclude payments of less than $1,000. Let’s suppose, however, that including these incidents doubles the total amount of payouts over the last decade. Then they’d represent 0.56 percent of the national policing budget. That’s still awfully close to zero for a line of work whose employees lay their lives on the line every day, and who constantly need to make split-second life-and-death decisions.
It’s of course certain that the number of police misconduct charges that produced payouts, whether they stemmed from genuine abuses or not, doesn’t include all cases of misconduct because so many undoubtedly aren’t reported. But even if all of them were, and consequently the total cost of misconduct got doubled, its share of total U.S. policing spending over the last decade would barely top one percent. So forgive me if I’m not overcome with outrage.
As for the second question, in February, 2021, a team of academics and policy analysts estimated that in the 2017, crime cost the U.S. economy $2.6 trillion. That single year number is more than 8oo times bigger than the Post‘s figure for the last ten years’ worth of costs for police misconduct payouts.
As a result, these police misconduct costs as a percentage of the costs of crime to America over a year – much less a decade – don’t even represent the proverbial “drop in the bucket.” They’re more like an aerosol particle in the bucket.
The researchers who came up with the cost-of-crime figure acknowledge that limitations on the available data for crime forced them to include modeling techniques in their calculations, and that more work (and more actual information) should be performed to produce greater accuracy. But even if the $2.6 trillion overestimates the national cost of crime by half, it would still render the police misconduct payouts total utterly trivial in comparison.
Policing abuses definitely need to be reduced dramatically. But how about setting the same goal for the kinds of rampant journalistic abuses most recently epitomized by this Washington Post investigation?